Monday, November 22, 2010

On Palate, Determinism and Science

A recent argument with a famous cookbook author and teacher, turned out to be a pretty thought provoking experience for me. Although she was, I thought, extremely rude and condescending, I doubt she had any idea that her mean-spirited comments would cause anything other than embarrassment to me. Yet this morning while I was swimming at the gym, something she wrote to me-by way of attempting to dismiss another famous author who she seemed to think had no right to write about cooking from the perspective of a scientist (She called him "useless to cooks.") -came back to me. 
When it comes to cooking, however, science may explain, but it doesn't "govern" to use your term. It's the palate that does that, and that is the reason that there are many more technically proficient chefs than there are good cooks.
For starters, I think some of the second part of the statement has merit and that it is probably true that there are many more technically proficient chefs than there are good cooks. Like her, I cannot prove that it is true that the number of technically proficient chefs outnumber those that she and I would consider to be good cooks, but it feels right. My personal experience suggests that the population of technically proficient cooks is very small and that a good deal of badly prepared meals are made by cooks whose command of technique is very weak. However, the rules of polite rhetoric require that I agree with something she wrote, so let's just say that I agree with most of the second part of that statement, and take a look at what I cannot agree with
When it comes to cooking, however, science may explain, but it doesn't "govern" to use your term. It's the palate that does that,
And the statement I wrote that provoked her response
To say that [Name Redacted] is of no use to cooks is as misguided as suggesting that it is useless for a cook to understand the physical and chemical principles that govern the rules of cooking. 
I used to work with a very religious Hatian fellow who was fond of saying "Man proposes, God disposes" whenever something went wrong. You may want to do something, you may try to do something, but unless God allows you to do it, it ain't getting done. 

Since this is a secular blog, I am not going to get involved in discussing whether or not God exists or if God's existence plays any role in deciding whether or not your bread will proof or you pasta will taste the way you hope it will taste. Rather I'm going to use the logic of that statement, to explain how I think what I believe is the proper relationship between what the famous cookbook author calls "palate" and science. But first let me make it clear what I mean by the word "palate."

Since the word palate is a term of art that is idiosyncratically defined by people who practice and patronize arts where it's necessary to speak about palate. I'm going to define it in the way that I, as a chef and culinary teacher, understand it. I'm sure if you look it up in a dictionary its definition won't be that different from 
a set of personally held beliefs about how a thing(s) or idea(s) should be, before the self recognizes that that thing (s) or idea(s) as aesthetically pleasing. 
When I am engaged in the work of a chef, I use my palate/beliefs about how food should look and taste to guide me as I choose what ingredients I will use, what proportions I will mete and what cooking techniques I will use to construct a dish that I hope will be aesthetically pleasing to myself and to the palates of those I hope will eat it. However, if my beliefs about how a dish should be in order to be aesthetically pleasing do not take into account the fact that nothing I do can violate the laws of physics and be successful, it does not matter what my palate decided, it's not happening. So, returning to the interior logic of the homily of my former Haitian friend :
Palate Proposes, Science disposes. 
Atomic and Molecular Theory, Chemistry, Biology and ultimately the Laws of Physics determined what will and will not happen in the kitchen. To believe palate is the sole arbiter of what will and will not occur, defies reason and smacks of hubris.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pumping Brine

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brining, A Nuanced View

I know that writing about brining in the hours before Thanksgiving has become as clich├ęd as posting about aphrodisiac foods before St. "Won't you please let me jump your bones?" Day. However, I was recently inspired to write about it after reading something attributed to Harold McGee on the blog The Culinary Butler

 Brining Is a Trade-off 
Brining a turkey by soaking it in a tub of salty water (our basic brine is a cup and a half of kosher salt per gallon of water) will definitely get you moister results—up to 20% moister, says Harold—but it comes at the expense of flavor. "You've got a nice turkey with lots of turkey flavor. When you brine it, you're basically diluting that flavor with salty tap water," says Harold. A better route may be salting the bird for a couple nights. It gets some of moisture retention qualities of brining, without diluting flavor.
I assume that the basic brine recipe in the quote is not Harold's and that he would not advocate brining a turkey in a 12% brine ( approx 495g salt/4000g water). A 4- 6% brine is more like it, for example this brine recipe by Alton Brown  ( approx 330g salt/ 8000 g water and stock).  But I digress.

Harold hits the nail on the head when he says that brining is a trade-off that gives you a moister turkey (And any meat that you brine) at the expense of flavor. He is also right to say that when you add water to the meat you are diluting the flavor.  The flavor of the turkey is "diluted" by adding water to the meat, but also it is diluted because brining "washes" flavor out of the meat. Adding water to the meat will increase the ratio of water to protein to fat, so compared to the same mass of a turkey that was not brined there will be less flavor per unit mass. However, what is also true is that as the turkey sits in the brine it loses flavor to the brine. Here's why:

Think of the turkey as a balloon filled with approximately 70% water and 30% protein and other molecules dissolved in that water. The skin of the turkey balloon allows water, other small molecules and ions to pass into it and out of it.  When you put the turkey in a brine that is 95% water (a 5% brine), the water inside the turkey and in the brine will move back and forth until the concentration of water in and outside of the turkey is the same ( approx 82%) and while that is happening - specifically, while water is moving from the turkey to the brine- those water soluble proteins and other, small molecules and ions are leaving the bird along with the water.

Sure, some of those water soluble proteins (like myoglobin), move back into the turkey from the brine. But they do not all go back in, some stay in the brine.  This is why brines become cloudy over time (this is especially obvious in simple clear water and salt brines.) and the other half of the reason why turkey (and all meat) loses flavor when you brine it. Those water soluble molecules that are clouding the brine have flavor that is going to be dumped.

There are far better ways to take advantage of the properties of brine and its active ingredients than drowning a turkey in a pail of salt water. A brine pump allows you to inject your brine directly into the bird with no significant loss of water soluble flavorants. It's not as easy to use as a bucket of salt water, but it's faster and gives much better results.

You can also, as Harold points out, dry rub the turkey.

I rarely brine anymore, and I almost never brine poultry unless I'm going to cook the living daylights out of it on a BBQ or in the smoker. Mostly I rub with salt sometimes salt and sugar.

Dry rubbing results in very little loss of flavor, especially if you use fine salt which, unlike coarse Kosher salt, spends very little time on the surface of the meat (because is dissolves quickly) drawing out less water and flavorful water soluble molecules.  I recommend a rate of 14g salt per 1000 g meat for dry rubs. If I want to add sugar to enhance browning and  moisture retention during cooking and to help keep the meat tender by inhibiting coagulation of the muscle proteins, I add half the mass of the sugar to the mix so the rub becomes 7g Sugar/14g Salt/1000g meat.

I'll anticipate objections to my suggestion to use fine salt in the dry rub by saying that, even though you will lose less moisture and flavor by using it, you may want to use coarse salt anyway, especially if you are cooking poultry with skin and you like the skin to be crisp. This is because coarse salt spends more time on the surface pulling water out of the skin than fine salt and less water in the skin, means crispier skin.

See, I told you this was going to be a nuanced discussion. ;-)

that's only if you eat a smaller serving of turkey than you would have eaten had you not brined.

Food For Thought

It's more like a snack than a meal, but it is tasty.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Roman Fish Tanks and Global Sea Level Rise

Like a lot of people who studied geology and paleoclimatology in the 1970-80's, I was taught that sea level had been rising since the end of the Pleistocene and the melting of the glaciers that covered so much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere. On field trips to the eastern shores of North America I saw abundant evidence of how sea level had risen over the last 15-12,000 years in the form of submerged human settlements and previously subaerially exposed geological features.

While nothing has been discovered to refute this model of what might be called "natural" or non-anthropogenic rise in sea level, there appears to be evidence that up to 2000 years ago, the rate at which sea level rose was much slower. In other words, at 2000 years BP (Before Present) sea level began to rise faster. It is presumed that the increase in the rate of sea level rise is a function of an increase it the growth of human populations and the resultant increase in deforestation and output of carbon dioxide from the burning of wood and coal, coupled with an increase in methane and other greenhouse gases associated with human activity.

Ok, so why am I writing about changes in sea level in a blog that is putatively devoted to the subject of food and cooking? Well, it turns out that some of the evidence for the acceleration of the rise in sea level over the last 2000 years comes from an examination of the fish tanks that ancient Romans used to impound fish destined for the dinner table.

For a more complete explanation of the nexus of rising sea level, Roman fish cookery, deforestation, and anthropogenic out-gassing you can read this or watch the video or do both.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Musing on Craft

I don't know much about how other craftsmen approach their work. However, when I butcher or perform any one of the thousands of tasks that fall under the umbrella of the craft of cooking, I approach it with the attitude that I am involving myself in a process that has no discrete begining or end and with no expectation that I am duplicating something I did before. The only aspect that is the same, day in and out, is the goal that I set for myself: Make it look and taste good. 

I don't care deeply about much more than aesthetics. 

For me, it's all about appearance and taste. In my daily work I don't worry about sustainability and carbon footprints or any of the other big issues of the day. I worry about whether what I am making will look and taste good. After all, what is the job of a cook when you strip it down to its foundations? 

Across the centuries and continents and cultures the answer has always been the same: The basic job of a cook is to make or, if you prefer, help food look and taste good. 

Make it look and taste good and the job is done. 

It has only been since, when, last week (?) that we have been told that worrying over the fate of agriculture and heritage breeds and nutrient density has been something we have to add to our cooking tasks. Of course, I agree that we cooks should care about and take some responsibility for the provenance and husbandry of the food we prepare. But if you delete concern for aesthetics, it won't matter a bit where the food came from or how it was grown when what you produce is bland slop. On the other hand, a daily narrow focus on making beautiful flavorful food, will guide you to fulfilling the sine qua non of the cook: making beautiful flavorful food. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Can Someone Explain This?

This gun  M274 "mechanical mule" and 106mm recoilless rifle (Thanks for the ID Pete Henry!) was being towed through my town during today's Veterans Day Parade.
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It has an Oscar Meyer logo on the barrel. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Our Smoker

It is loaded up with pork breakfast sausage on hickory smoke.
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